Essays - Winter 2015

What I Have Taught—and Learned


After 50 years as a professor, I understand that my job is to make students think hard about thinking

By William M. Chace

December 10, 2014



My teaching career has been more than five decades long, but only now have I begun to dig into what it has meant—to those I’ve taught and to me. What was I doing, in what human situation was I participating, when, in all those classrooms, lecture halls, and seminar settings over the years, I “taught”? What was I giving out, giving up, and getting back, and what were students giving up and getting back? A little procession of plausible answers has wandered into my thinking. I was, I could say, “supplying information”—about, say, William Faulkner or Herman Melville or Shakespeare or, year after year, James Joyce. I could assert that the students were learning, but just how sure could I be about that? Even if they told me (which they did) about the value of those hours we spent together, what did they then possess that I had given to them? Even if I were, year after year, diligently turning over what I thought they needed to know, how depressingly secondary my role must have been. Such information as I had was no more mine than anything else I could pilfer from the teachers and writers who had come before me. What kind of dignity was attached to having been that sort of conduit, a dutiful middleman between knowledge and the mind of a student?

Climbing up a rung or two on the ladder of pride, I could announce that I had for years been “inspiring” my students, giving them, through my own example, a sense of how one could live amid books and authors and beauty and wisdom. Thinking this way, I could find myself in euphoric agreement with Henry Adams that “a teacher affects eternity; he can never tell when his influence stops.” As long as I never tested such a noble sentiment, never examined too closely just how far my influence had gone, I could indulge a soothing sense of having made a consequential impact on my students.

But when I thought of the teachers I fondly remembered, what exactly did their inspiration amount to? I recalled little that they said. I remembered instead their way of speaking, their faces and posture, if they stood or sat, the titles and some of the contents of the books they taught, but few details of anything they lectured me about or tested me on. For one college teacher, John Ashmead at Haverford, I could come up only with the memory that he devoted an entire hour to detailing the difference between bunkum and balderdash. Of another, Tom Flanagan at Berkeley, I know he was both the wittiest and the most informed person I had ever encountered. He is now gone; I cherish everything I can recall about him. But the memory is all too slender. I can’t bring back to mind, in any particulars, the knowledge he gave me. Emerson put it this way: “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” How odd a relationship, one that leaves me only with some blurred pictures about what my teachers have tried to teach me. How can this constitute inspiration? Yet I knew that, in Emerson’s phrase, they had indeed made me.

Later, when I became the teacher rather than the student and when I thought about what I was doing in the classroom, Chaucer’s modest description of the clerke in The Canterbury Tales struck me as about right: “And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.” I taught as I learned, learned as I taught. But on some other days, my thinking darkened when I stared into the deeper dimensions of what I was up to. If, as psychological studies have reported, most of the content of what anyone learns in a classroom is quickly forgotten (according to some experiments, up to 80 percent in two weeks), then another dynamic, hidden from view, might better define my relationship to my students. Muppet master Jim Henson said that children “don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” If content wasn’t really at the heart of my transactions with my students, what was?

Such unsatisfying explanations brought me, unwillingly, to power. It is hard to think of any human relationship—familial, political, sexual, social, professional—in which the intricate workings of power can’t be found. Even the frisson of romantic love is partly fueled by power in its most delicate and treasured form. Where is power found in teaching? Like another profession often cited as the oldest, teaching is founded on a relationship that is at once formal and intimate. Its mysteries as well as its satisfactions are bound up with all the complexities of every human connection: trust and lack of trust, intimacy as well as its absence, patience and exasperation, purpose mixed with random curiosity, submission and, yes, power. This last element is the least understood and most potent part of teaching. Because power is alien to the polite ethic of congenial agreement between teacher and student, it deserves close attention.

In my teaching, power has been present even when disguised by intimacy. It existed simply because I was older than my students (but not much older when I started out) and had organized the class. I also issued the assignments, called on students, controlled the grade book, and was in all ways the authority. When the child psychologist and psychotherapist Haim Ginott taught, he came to the same understanding: “I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.” College classrooms lack the innocent intensity of elementary schoolrooms, but a professor’s power is constantly deployed in a hundred ways. Some are devious.

Here’s one: what you don’t say, what you don’t tell, what you leave out. It has to do with timing, and it works this way: “I am now teaching you everything you need to know about this author. But I’m not teaching you everything I know.” Like strippers, teachers hold something back. So, when teaching the ominously disturbing short stories of Franz Kafka, I waited a long time before disclosing that Kafka would laugh aloud when reading those stories to his close friends. For my students, first came the terror, and only much later, when the horror had struck deep, Kafka’s peculiar comedy. It’s timing. Anyone in charge of a classroom knows the tactic, firmly staking out the distance between the portion of understanding initially disclosed to the student and the portion held in reserve.

When students progress from satisfaction with what they have to a desire for more, teachers who withhold knowledge are negotiating with them. Once that relationship, never explicitly acknowledged, becomes secure, a minor miracle can happen in a classroom: the moment when one student, and then perhaps another, much to their surprise but owing to the artificially enclosed arena in which they find themselves, say something they did not know they had the insight to say—or the skill or the courage. It may well be something they could never say to their friends or parents. It may be something unknown even to the student until that moment. It represents an advance from which there is little likelihood of retreat. It is learning.

The learning created in those special moments has little to do with facts or numbers, dates or places. Instead, the student, enclosed within the classroom walls, suddenly becomes aware of the potential strength of his or her own mind and thus how capable a human mind is of creating further insights, recognitions, and perceptions. In those moments, a touch of mastery comes to the student. Building on this mastery, instance after instance, can reward the student with the confidence that defines education in a sense that is not simply practical or utilitarian. The student hasn’t necessarily learned something new; he or she has gotten to know what “knowing” can be.

The process is delicate. The teacher, armed with the power central to the profession, must diminish that power so that its imbalance, always to be preserved in the teacher’s favor, is nonetheless slowly tipped, encounter after encounter, to give the student greater command and greater confidence. No matter how much the teacher gives, the sources will never run dry, because what is given is not primarily information but the mutual recognition that the student is on the way to knowing. And the student, taking all that can be given, can be surprised by the access to perception suddenly acquired.

Of course the encounter often fails. Fatigue on everyone’s part, student listlessness, inept teacher preparation, or a good question badly put and badly answered: these and every other sort of weakness can damage a classroom, leaving it a scene of human enterprise gone amiss. But the beginning touches of mastery, those moments of recognition, can prove resilient. Sometimes they are strong enough, memorable enough, to salvage a class even after it seems wrecked. Such occasions constitute the insurance policy every good teacher wants to have.

If what I believe about a classroom at its best is true, MOOCs (massive open online courses) will never be able to create the ideal classroom’s human complexity or improvisational magic. The focus of MOOCs is “deliverables,” and the method of such delivery is unidirectional—from content provider to passive recipient. In contrast, the classroom at its best employs content only as the means, not the ends, of education. That kind of education tells students what their minds can do, not what their minds can contain.

The delicacy and fragility of this classroom experience can be tested in many ways. In a graduate seminar on W. B. Yeats that I took long ago at Berkeley, the teacher, Tom Flanagan, had a single pedagogical method: he would ask questions, one by one, carefully doling them out. Each question would be lofted into space, and the dozen students in the seminar would seemingly gaze at it for what felt like minutes but surely was only seconds. Then one of us would clumsily try to frame a response. One day Flanagan aimed his question directly at the only one of us who had, until that moment, not spoken a word. Minutes, not seconds, did pass as the student and teacher stared at one another. Silence filled the room, the kind of silence, prolonged and painful, that cries out for mercy. At last the student spoke and slowly assembled a series of sentences that were clear, handsome in their fullness, and wholly responsive to both the question and all it implied. Flanagan then said, “You, sir, now know how to talk about Mr. Yeats. The rest of you have seen the kind of thinking your colleague can do. I trust that all of you will take this example to heart.” That was teaching; that was power. It was also the formal intimacy, the tacit trust of one person in another, and the patience out of which thought and learning can emerge. Without the teacher’s shrewd encouragement, the student might never have spoken. And yes, we took the example to heart.

Without such moments, little genuine education can happen. In an unmistakable yet tacit way, then, the student needs the teacher. Just as surely, the teacher needs the student—not for a job, not for self-satisfaction, but for something much better: the privilege of being present at the moment when a younger mind takes flight and becomes stronger, possibly strong enough one day to surpass the teacher in power and authority.

But note: a student who surpasses a teacher may then reject the teacher. Intellectual worship turns into disillusion. Much of the progress of scholarship is founded on the ascendance of new finding against old finding, of student contending with teacher. Students can come to resent the power of a teacher or tire of a relationship in which they are secondary. Good teachers recognize these complications and try to guard against them. They know that the connection can become so intense, so riddled by the complexities of power, that it is best to bring it to an end. Emerson sought a way to break such fever: “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion.” Writing at about the same time, Amos Bronson Alcott said, “The true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence. He inspires self-trust. He guides their eyes from himself to the spirit that quickens him. He will have no disciple.”

But good teachers inevitably create disciples; having them is intrinsic to the profession. Some students can even come to think of their teachers as suprahuman. Once, while grocery shopping, I encountered a student in the produce aisle and she blurted out in astonishment, “I didn’t know you ate.” That embarrassing moment reminded me of what Joyce said when a young man came up to him in Zurich and asked, “May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?  ” Joyce replied, somewhat like King Lear, “No, it did lots of other things too.”

The complicated, formally intimate, and occasionally competitive relationship I am describing here exists everywhere in teaching but is found most intensely in the disciplines that focus on the formal and the intimate: the humanities. What studies of literature, the fine arts, music, and kindred fields share is a focus on the ways in which the stubbornly human is configured in designs, patterns, and superimpositions that are extrahuman. A book is written by a person, but the book is not the person; Beethoven did not compose himself; the paintings of Matisse are not autobiographies; the stories of Hemingway are not his life. Those patterns, those constructs, have a way of nonetheless turning us back on ourselves and reminding us of what we are as humans. For this reason, a classroom in a humanities field is unlike a science laboratory (a powerful teaching arena, but in a different way). A humanities course is situated at the center of human emotion, desire, aspiration, and hope. It can recall us to ourselves, in both our human capacities and our lack of capacity, our ambitions, our admirations, our envies, and our inner perplexities.

Which explains, I now understand, why it mattered less what I taught during all those years than that I taught. The subject matter was secondary to the essential matter at hand: what it means to be human, mortal, unfinished, weak and strong, stupid and smart, imperfect. Beginning teachers, as I recall from my own time as a beginner, believe they must know everything about their subjects. They fear they might seem to lack omniscience in the presence of their students. Such fear is nonsensical. Teachers are not appointed to be encyclopedias. Their primary role, as mine was for my students, is not to provide information about authors. It is to exploit (ugly word, but true) the authors to the greater end of teaching students about themselves. In recognizing now what I had been doing all those years, I mean no disservice to the authors. They cannot be dislodged from the place they rightfully have. My role was not to worship the writers and to tell my students how great they were. The late David Foster Wallace had it right:

One has only to spend a term trying to teach college literature to realize that the quickest way to kill an author’s vitality for potential readers is to present that author ahead of time as “great” or “classic.” Because then the author becomes for the students like medicine or vegetables, something the authorities have declared “good for them” that they “ought to like,” at which point the students’ nictitating membranes come down, and everyone just goes through the requisite motions of criticism and paper-writing without feeling one real or relevant thing. It’s like removing all oxygen from the room before trying to start a fire.

My role was to supply that oxygen. Only teachers can provide it, and not all teachers, sad to say, do so easily. Learning needs human beings in rooms, teachers and students with all they can bring to the occasion. It is indeed expensive, and it flourishes in small settings, seminars, and tutorials—wherever the formal intimacy I am talking about occurs. Perhaps the only quotable remark ever made by President James A. Garfield says something true about the intimacy of good teaching: “Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus, and libraries without him.” Garfield was a student of Hopkins when Hopkins taught at Williams College and where he served as president. Williams and colleges like it supply a lot of oxygen to students. That’s invaluable.

But are bright young people the only ones to be supplied the necessary oxygen? Today I teach in a continuing studies program for the not-young—parents and grandparents, professionals, retired professionals, home-keepers, successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs, physicians, attorneys, technicians, and accountants. Some of my students are older than I am, but we all are old enough to remember, say, Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Such programs are growing around the country as universities wake up to the potential of educating the adult populations surrounding their campuses. Those schools and those new students are asking the old questions: Is education wasted on the young? Can older men and women get as much out of it as undergraduates? Can they get even more out of it? Meanwhile, I ask the same questions about teaching older students that I asked about the younger ones: “What am I giving out, giving up, getting back, and what are students giving up and getting back?”

Some things have remained the same. I’m still the authority. My new students wouldn’t have it any other way; they want to believe I come equipped with strengths and knowledge otherwise not available to them. My younger students took it for granted that I knew more than they, but my students of today engage in a willing suspension of disbelief about that; they impute to me a power beyond their own. They do so to make the course worth their time. My job is to live up to that high expectation. This is the nature of our trust, their believing that I possess something they couldn’t get on their own, my knowing I have to deliver.

As they trust me, I profit from them. All of us are cluttered by experience; many of my students have more of it than I have. Jobs, marriage, children, disappointments, successes, illnesses, some hopes shattered and others realized—the array of bruises and pleasures that life parcels out. The histories they bring to the classroom make the teaching of some books more satisfying than it often is with the young. Consider King Lear, Shakespeare’s most painful tragedy. Whatever a 19-year-old student might see in the play, that student is in no position to assess the danger of dividing an estate among one’s children, or the approaching peril of great dominion gone awry, or the onset of senility. My current students know enough to talk about such challenges in knowing ways. They haven’t been kings, but most are parents; most have had to make decisions that have changed the lives of others; and most have not escaped the agony of regret. Or consider the situation of Mr. Leopold Bloom, who, in Ulysses, must confront the knowledge that his wife will be unfaithful to him on a certain day—June 16, 1904. Bloom does not stand in the way of that infidelity. In fact, he helps to make it inevitable, but why? Out of what weakness, what forbearance, what cowardice, and yet perhaps what wise love? My students of today know enough, while pondering such agonizing questions, to withhold easy judgment; my students of yesterday did not.

One element of my teaching, however, remains the same: I exploit authors to the greater end of having students find out more about themselves. They come to my classes for the purest reason of all: they want to learn. But to learn what? The answer: intellectual and emotional truths lost to them when, on the way to adult lives, they had had to shunt aside certain provinces of knowledge and understanding to make room for others. They now have the freedom to confront and study things they had left behind. Here is what one of my students, a retired surgeon, wrote to me before taking one of my courses. Note the candor; note the deferential formality clothing the intensely personal; both have become familiar to me:

Over the last decade, my personal observations of the impermanence of “solid-facts” and the futility of chasing the ever-moving goal posts of “success” have awakened in me a persistent thirst for the bliss of “wisdom.” Your course is the first step on my journey toward uncovering what I know lies within me, so that I may seek a better understanding of the human condition.

Students like him are recovering lost time. Undergraduates, no matter how bright and ambitious and winning, won’t know how many things they will be giving up on the journey to adulthood. Such regret, mild or deep, will come later to them, as it has come to my students of today. Those older students, when young, could not imagine “being old.” Now they know.

What about the pedagogical striptease? Do I hold back anything from my current students? Should I? Isn’t it risky not to protect certain reservoirs of my knowledge? Don’t I undermine my necessary authority if I put everything on view? With my undergraduate students, that was a central part of the strategy. With my current students, however, I see such strategy as fakery and I keep no secret knowledge from them. I’m more likely now to say, “I don’t know,” and then ask them to answer the questions they put to me, particularly if the questions approach the ultimate meaning of anything. Despite their imputation of power to me, we really are in this together.

Thinking about them, I come upon a surprise. I see in them the older versions of the undergraduates I once taught. Those young students, lost in the mysteries of time, are now filing back to me, one by one. They are not the same individuals, but that doesn’t matter. The young are returning. They are announcing a readiness to take full advantage of the teaching they once were given but imperfectly understood. Anatole France, writing in 1881, described this gratifying relationship: “The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.” Curiosity then; satisfaction now.

And what about those surprises, those minor miracles I described earlier, the moments when students say something in a classroom they did not know they had the knowledge or courage to say? Does this happen now? Yes, but in a way appropriate to the men and women my students have become. Their insights don’t burst upon them with the nervous excitability of youth, but with modest self-congratulation that they are saying something about their lives that, having rested half-submerged in their minds, is only now finding its way to the surface. They are releasing knowledge to themselves. So it is not surprising if one of them says, “Linear thinking has been my life. That’s how I worked and lived. It’s good, but so is poetry,” or, more poignantly, “I understand my parents for the first time even though they are dead.” And then there is the student who, rising to rhetorical grandeur, one day announced, “What I am is what I was. Faulkner got it right: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ ”

Thus, again, the peculiar power of the classroom, a place both prompting and safeguarding incremental self-knowledge. Thus, again, the psychological perceptions taking place in that special arena being just as significant as the content of the books we read. Thus, again, power and the way it is disposed—but that power now more evenly shared among all participants, and this because it is impossible to suppress the truth that, where it counts, we are all students. As I study them, they study me. I believe they want to know what makes me tick, why I think what I think, how I wound up as a teacher, and where I go when I go home. Bestowing power on me, at the same time they want to collect me into their fraternity. When we talk about consequential matters, we move toward equality.

Not all books are equal. Some of them work well for older students, and others don’t. When I teach, the books I prefer are distinctly problematic, those that again and again prove challenging, even abrasive, the ones that leave us with no easy answers. I apply a simple test when making my list of what we are going to read: do I want to think about it again? So Herman Melville rather than John Steinbeck, Virginia Woolf rather than Anthony Trollope, Kafka rather than F. Scott Fitzgerald, the later but not the earlier poems of Yeats, the tragic rather than the comic Shakespeare, and Joyce in “The Dead” and, above all, Ulysses. As Lionel Trilling, masterly teacher, once said, “real books read us.” Because of the astonishing classroom force they can generate, those “real books” are the ones I choose to teach. My preferences might
appear wrongheaded to other teachers, but they aren’t teaching my courses. What any teacher does is private and idiosyncratic. Teaching is neither a public activity nor a committee undertaking. At its best, and when it works, it is enjoyably lonely and risky. You always get to do it by yourself.

One part of the loneliness arises from the awareness that while you are, for a time, the center of attention in a classroom, everything you give is soon dispersed in a thousand directions, all unknowable to you. After class is finished, you no longer exist, save in memory. When Yeats died, W. H. Auden wrote: “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities / And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections.” All students leave their teachers behind, taking with them what they will, often looking back, but always translating what they were taught into what they learned, and these two, the teacher comes to understand, can never be the same.

After five decades and counting of doing it, of “giving out, giving up, and getting back,” first with the young and now with the kind of people those young men and women have gradually become, I am beginning to understand what it has been all about. Teaching is not a “delivery system.” It is a human engagement. It’s what we, as a species, do all the time when at our best: using the power we have, helping each other, giving a hand, extending hope through sharing, and figuring out ways to shoulder the load. Most of us teach, one way or another. My way has been in the classroom.

William M. Chace is professor of English emeritus at Stanford University, where he teaches courses on James Joyce, Irish fiction, critical thinking, and poetry. He was president of Wesleyan University from 1988 to 1994 and of Emory University from 1994 to 2003 and is the author of One Hundred Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President.

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